The video for Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 booty anthem “Baby Got Back” opens on two white girls gawking at an African-American woman on a pedestal, drawing S’s in the air with her ample bottom. “Oh my god, Becky, look at her butt,” one scoffs in valley speak. “It is so big. She looks like one of those rap guys’ girlfriends … They only talk to her because she looks like a total prostitute … It’s like, out there. Gross … She’s just so black.” Then Mix-a-Lot puts the girls in their place with his equally creepy perspective: “I like big butts and I cannot lie.” The video is an enduring tableau of the complicated nexus of race, class, gender and sexual morality that is the large female backside.
The song dropped the same year my “birthing hips filled in”—a cringe-making phrase my mom used to explain how my lower half had blossomed into a 40-inch girth (reportedly the same circumference as Kim Kardashian’s). Boys rapped the tune at my back as I passed them in the high-school hallway. My first real boyfriend was a chubby 17-year-old with multiple piercings and a bum fetish. He called mine his “patoot” and showed me VHS tapes of Jamaican booty dancers whose muscular orbs bounced in ways I’d never seen. I was not impressed.
My attitude toward my own butt was similar to the WASPy girls at the opening of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s video. Being a white kid raised on fashion magazines, I was enamoured with the heroin-chic figure of Kate Moss. I wanted to be delicate and narrow, so my low-rise jeans would hang off me, as if I were an underfed child. I didn’t want to be an erotic or exotic creature leered at by men or sneered at by women—the only two possible perspectives, it seemed at the time.
Twenty-two years later, the big butt is enjoying its most feverish moment yet. Following the first-wave icons of posteriority, like Jennifer Lopez, who led the late-’90s Latin dance-pop explosion, and Beyoncé, who proclaimed her bootyliciousness in 2001, North American beauty standards shifted, making a serious back-end bounty desirable to a broad audience.
Now, second-wave bootyists abound, like Rihanna in her see-through gown at the CFDA awards, and the entire Kardashian clan, who may well be responsible for the 16-percent spike in Brazilian butt lifts since 2012. Plus J. Lo, again, who has updated her ass appeal in a new video called “Booty,” which is a master class in booty popping. Then there are Caucasian women like the tiny-heinied Miley Cyrus, who twerks like a Jamaican dance-haller, and the Aussie rapper Iggy Azalea, who has designers like Emilio Pucci eager to dress what would once have been considered an unfashionable pear shape. And, most recently, there’s the #belfie.
Insta-speak for “butt selfie,” the word entered the online lexicon last winter, courtesy of a 20-year-old New York fitness phenom named Jen Selter who skyrocketed to social media fame for documenting her squat-hard behind. Poolside, on yacht decks, in Central Park, against palm trees and graffiti walls, her neon-clad backside cuts a formidable, basketball-shaped profile for the benefit of three million followers. The photos have earned her a New York Post fitness column and supplement endorsements, redefining the term “money-maker” for the digital age.
Some days I’m comforted by the barrage of butt images. I like to think women of many ethnicities have reclaimed the rear’s outré status in the western imagination from teenage boys and “those rap guys.” Other days, I resist the urge to count my cellulite dimples and make an appointment for a lipo-lift.
I put my ambivalence to Erynn Masi de Casanova, co-editor of the book Global Beauty, Local Bodies and a professor who teaches sociology of the body at the University of Cincinnati. She agrees the issue is tied to race. “We have research on African-American and Latino subcultures,” she tells me, “and they tend to appreciate curvier body shapes than the stick-thin Caucasian western ideal. North America and Europe are actually global outliers in having this ultra-thin, almost malnourished body aesthetic.”
I experienced this dynamic during the four post-grad months I spent in Brazil, where boutique clerks told me to eat more so I could fill out size 2 shorts—the only time a size 2 has sagged off my hips—and throughout a stint living in Harlem, NYC, where men routinely applauded my backside situation, including one who said to his friend in my wake, “Damn, that white girl has a black woman’s ass.” My butt, I learned, is only “big” or “undesirable” through the narrow lens of my durable white-girl ideal. The fact that my German-made station wagon is somehow essentially black to that guy, I take as a complicated compliment.
“As North America becomes more diverse,” Casanova continues, “aspects of these minority cultures are being incorporated into mainstream culture.” I think of Kimye on the cover of Vogue, the constant intersections of rap and fashion, and the astral rise of artists who appropriate African-Americanisms, like Robin Thicke, whose video for “Give It 2 U” stars black cheerleaders on all fours in front of a massive papier mâché butt titled “Ass Float.” In Sir Mix-a-Lot’s era, the big butt was “so black”—so other. Now, it’s a universal prize coveted by men and women of all races. And, as with any ideal, it’s elusive.
“Yes, women are being encouraged to love their butts,” says Casanova. “But they’re being encouraged to aspire to a particular kind of butt. It’s symmetrical, it’s perky, and it’s cellulite- free … Ironically, having a thin body with a big butt is harder to achieve than a thin-all-over body, because how do you lose weight everywhere but your behind?”
It’s extremely difficult—I’ve tried. I spent much of my 20s attempting to eradicate every last wobbly bit with squats, long daily runs and the Atkins diet, which only left me with a bony sternum and deflated saddlebags to which curds still clung. Many women of colour face the same issue. “I myself have been chasing J. Lo’s butt since the late ’90s,” says a South American friend who is amused by the belfie trend. “But if white women want to amplify their behinds, more power to them!”
Lyzabeth Lopez, Toronto’s answer to Jen Selter, helps women do exactly that. The prolific belfie artist owns Hourglass Workout, a butt-centric Toronto gym that’s grown to 11 locations since 2007. “They all want a bigger bum,” she tells me of her clientele. Through gruelling lower-body boot camps, she delivers.
The atmosphere in her studio is girly, multiculti clubhouse (in June, she was training clients for Caribana, the annual Caribbean festival in Toronto that brings out women in G-strings for the city’s sexiest parade). Lopez smiles brightly in a full face of makeup at 6 a.m. The one-hour caboose-shredding circuit ends in partner work called Booty Blast. One woman lies on her side and lifts her top leg, while another presses it downward for resistance. I pair with Lopez, who laughs, “C’mon, Rachel! You can push harder than that!” as I bear down with my full body weight. After her turn, she instructs me to punch her in the glute to loosen it up. I’ve never felt gluteal firmness of this magnitude in my life.
Later, she tells me she spent decades fighting her shape and, after recovering from anorexia, finally embraced it through fitness. “It took me years to create a theory where I could build this,” she says, pointing to her behind, “and make this”— she gestures to her waist—“smaller.” The regimen, to boil it down, is clean eating with plenty of protein, squat-filled workouts three times a week, Pilates to winnow the waist and weights to build shoulders—the perfect hourglass.
As she’s telling me this, a five-foot Asian woman in neon pink tights wanders over and says two years ago she had no butt, but Lopez gave her a shelf. My eyes flick down to the protruding ledge where back meets cheeks. “My boyfriend loves it,” she whispers in mock secrecy.
It occurs to me that I’ve been so self-conscious of my figure, I’ve never asked a guy what he might like about it. I call up an ex and inquire: “What is it about the big butt?”
“It’s a deal-breaker,” he says, straight up. “I just won’t date thin women with no hips. They look too young and delicate.” Precisely the look I’ve been going for all these years, I think. “A woman with a big butt seems athletic and confident, and that’s incredibly sexy,” he continues. “It also just feels good to grab,” he adds, less high-mindedly, confirming the sex-strength combo typified by Selter and Lopez. “There’s just something about it,” he says finally. “It’s hard to intellectualize.” A lyric from Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” flashes into my head: “Been around the world, don’t speak the language/But your booty don’t need explaining.” I’m beginning to get what those rap guys have been talking about.